An American-Statesman report on the city’s unwillingess or inability to enforce its own building codes shouldn’t have surprised anyone at Austin’s City Hall. Though the American-Statesman’s Dave Harmon and Sarah Coppola uncovered too many new instances of health and safety risks, the basic story of lax enforcement hasn’t changed in years.
That doesn’t make it an old story — it makes it an ongoing one, and one that needs closure. Unfortunately, it’s a story that is going to be re-told until the City Council and administration do something about it. When that will be is anyone’s guess. It should be sooner rather than later, of course, but Harmon and Coppola depicted a municipal officialdom expressing concern, but also depicted a big gap between saying and doing.
As Coppola and Harmon reported, apartment owners look at 50-50 odds that a code complaint will result in a violation notice. There is a 1 in 10 chance that a complaint will lead to a citation, based on data provided by the city’s Code Compliance Department.
City code inspectors have documented more than 1,600 code violations at multifamily properties since 2007. But only 153 citations were issued and only 44 cases were forwarded to the city’s Building and Standards Commission — which can order repairs and levy fines — in those six years.
Robert Doggett, a lawyer with Rio Grande Legal Aid, told the reporters that Austin “is very good at making it look like they’ve done something to address a problem even though nothing has changed. I know they have the tools; they just refuse to use them.”
So, there are plenty of words sprayed at the public health and safety menace substandard apartments pose, but words haven’t had much effect, even after highly publicized — and highly embarrassing — brushes with disaster.
As we noted previously, the city has been spared deaths or injuries by luck or providence or both. Granted, the problem is a complex one. Tenants who can’t afford much rent put up with the conditions because all too often they can’t speak up and they can’t afford to move.
The demand for low-rent housing inside the city far exceeds supply. Landlords can and do evict tenants who make too many demands. Those expelled from housing can find it difficult to secure housing they can afford. Tenant advocates say that landlords share “black lists” of people who complain too much.
Because inspections are complaint driven, complexes can dodge scrutiny indefinitely.
It takes an incident that can’t be ignored to draw official attention to the condition of those buildings. Last year, for example, 160 residents of the Wood Ridge Apartments on Burton Drive were evacuated at city expense when a second-floor walkway collapsed. A subsequent inspection revealed that all 15 of the complex’s second-story walkways are substandard and posed an imminent threat of collapse.
That case generated plenty of attention and the city levied fines. In April, Owner David Andrew of La Jolla, Calif., offered to pay $220,000 of the more than $465,000 in fines the commission levied, but Chip Somerville, lawyer for the complex’s buyers, said that his client could not pay the rest.
Five months after the Wood Ridge collapse in May, 60 tenants were evacuated from the Las Palmas apartments on Town Lake Circle — less than a mile away from the troubled Wood Ridge complex — after a tenant reported hearing a loud crack from a sagging walkway.
Fortunately, no one was injured at either complex. City code inspectors were frequent visitors to both places but obviously had no effect on the problems.
“We need to take a hard look at the resources we’re allotting to Code Compliance and whether those resources are adequate,” City Council Member Kathie Tovo told the reporters. She is one of two council members who have proposed requiring licensing and regular inspection of rental properties. “It should be a priority to make sure everyone has safe housing.”
Indeed it should. But so far, public health and safety have been low on the priority list. Until decent housing is made available to low-income workers who need or want to live inside the city limits, there will be other collapses. People at City Hall know what to do, as Doggett said. They just need to act on that knowledge.
Meanwhile, city officialdom will be hoping that luck holds and no one is hurt when — not if — another incident like the one at Wood Ridge occurs. But as has been noted many times and in many contexts: Hope is not a plan.